By Catarina Demony and Clara-Laeila Laudette
LISBON (Reuters) -Demand for online mental health care will be a priority in the post-COVID world, bosses of telehealth apps say, after lockdowns took a toll on people's wellbeing and requests for virtual appointments skyrocketed.
"There's a mental health crisis in Europe... there's a big problem that needs to be solved," Johannes Schildt, the CEO of Sweden-based health startup Kry, one of Europe's leading digital healthcare providers, told Reuters at the Web Summit in Lisbon.
Kry, one of many companies participating in this year's tech gathering, provides users with video-based consultations with nurses and doctors and operates through public-private partnerships and agreements with private insurance providers.
The need for online mental health services existed before the pandemic, increased during, and will keep growing, Schildt said. Demand for such services on his app, which serves 25% of Swedish households, more than tripled in 2020.
A study by medical journal The Lancet showed 76 million additional cases of anxiety disorders and 53 million more major depressive disorder in 2020, with young people and women the most affected.
Kry just launched internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy for those struggling with mental health issues, a smartphone-based treatment already available in Sweden and due to be rolled out across Europe in 2022.
"The megatrend of digitalising healthcare predates the pandemic, but the pandemic did help make people realise they can, in fact, do all this stuff from home," Schildt said, predicting at-home COVID tests would pave the way to broader self-sampling by patients.
And the e-health sector is on the up: Kry's latest funding round brought in $500 million and a $2 billion valuation, while U.S.-based Carbon Health was worth $3.3 billion at its Blackstone-led funding round this summer, Forbes reported.
Eren Bali, founder and CEO of Carbon Health, which has several clinics country-wide and also provides online health appointments, echoed Schildt's views and told Reuters "all kinds of digital usage skyrocketed".
At the start of the pandemic, one in six Carbon Health users had downloaded the company's app - now, some 80% have it on their mobile phones, a trend Bali expects will continue.
Carbon Health did not offer online mental health support before the COVID-19 pandemic hit but a surge in demand led to the launch of the service last summer.
"Deep integration" between virtual systems and in-person appointments was the way forward when people's lives radically changed, Bali observed.
But the sector's growth also begs the question of how best to handle patient data - largely held in the databases of national health services and private insurance - amid starkly varying attitudes to data sharing across Europe and Scandinavia.
"It's a shame so much data is floating around, siloed into different systems," said Schildt, who believes accessing patient data would strengthen telemedicine.
"In Sweden, they expect you to have all their data synced: 'Why don't you have my vaccination info from 20 years ago?,' is the reaction we often get."
(Reporting by Catarina Demony and Clara-Laeila LaudetteEditing by Keith Weir and Kirsten Donovan)